Surgeons, physical scientists and computer specialists at the University of Dundee have just made a major breakthrough which will allow GPs to scan women for breast cancer in minutes in their local surgery. The new hand held instrument enables the detection of early subclinical breast lesion without the use of damaging x-rays and is inexpensive to manufacture and use.

The new technique, which the group have named Sonoelastographic Breast Imaging (SBI), has been developed by Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri and his Technology Research Group in the Department of Surgery and Molecular Oncology, together with computer scientists from the Division of Applied Computing.

The system uses ultrasound imaging combined with vibration to detect breast lesions at an early stage and works because these cancers are stiffer than the surrounding normal breast tissue. Initially, the team demonstrated that this unique imaging system works on realistic breast models. Now, early human cancers, which are too small for the surgeon to feel, have been detected by the system the world’s first Doppler power based sonoelastographic image of early breast cancer. The team is now refining the technique prior to commercial exploitation of the technology followed by large-scale clinical evaluation.

Professor Ian Ricketts, Head of the Division of Applied Computing explains: “We are now able to detect tumours by Sonoelastographic Breast Imaging rather than X-rays. Tumours are typically stiffer than normal tissue and therefore move differently when vibrated. Scanning the tissue, while applying an external source of vibration means the differences in movement can be detected and the potential tumour highlighted.”

The most significant advance in the technology is the facility to scan for cancer without using damaging x-radiation. Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri explains: “Our discovery clears the way for cancer screening without exposing women to radiation. Traditional x-ray based breast imaging (mammography) requires expensive equipment in specialised clinics or dedicated mobile screening vans and delivers a small but definite radiation dose to the breast. This limits the number of mammograms than can be performed in each adult female as part of the breast cancer screening process.

The speed with which we can scan women for cancer with the new system is a great advance. Instead of waiting for an x-ray scan appointment, leaving the clinic and waiting tentatively at home for the diagnosis, results can be obtained in minutes by a portable system that may be located outside Radiology Departments, e.g., outpatient clinics, GP Health Practices etc.”

Dr Tim Frank, a senior physicist researcher in the Technology Group: “This new technique is not restricted to breast cancer. Over the next few years, hopefully with the right level of grant support, we will be looking at using it to detect liver cancer and others.”

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